January 16, 2021

The Terror Of Faith

(It may be that the things I say below will be useless or even damaging to some people at this point in their life of faith.  I hope those people will ignore what I’ve written if it’s unhelpful to them.  Caveat lector.)

Growing in faith is an extremely dangerous proposition.  It’s been compared to leaping off a cliff, and that’s a good comparison:  We can’t see where we’re going, and we have to trust the result of our choice to someone or something beyond ourselves.

Jesus more commonly talks about dying, especially in terms of dying as a sacrifice.  “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  (Matthew 10:38)  (Let’s remember here that the cross is an instrument of execution, not just a struggle in our lives as is commonly taught.  Jesus is speaking about dying, not bearing up.)  He also said, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  (John 12:24 and 25)

Most of us are not going to die for our faith in a literal way, but we do have to face death.  In fact, we have to choose death.  Everything we are before we become Christians — all our beliefs, our political stands, our habits, even our sense of right and wrong — is going to have to be sacrificed to God.  We can’t keep anything of what we were.  It all has to go up in flames.  We can’t retain anything to be “Christianity plus” — not Christianity plus social action, or Christianity plus conservative politics, or Christianity plus my opinion about homosexuality or women or wealth.  All of it has to go.  We come before Jesus as little children, or even more, as unborn children, ready to be born again into an entirely new life, not assuming we can bring anything with us from the old life.

For example, maybe I’ve generally thought that being a nice person means being tolerant of others’ differences.  When I become a Christian I have to reconsider that idea, even put it to death.  Maybe I’ve thought that love means infinite gentleness; or maybe I’ve thought that righteousness means infinite judgment — those ideas have to be thrown into the fire, too.  Maybe I’ve always believed that Christians are more properly aligned with the political left, or the political right, with socialism or capitalism — toss ‘em in and watch ‘em burn.  Even when my opinions are actually right, actually aligned with God’s understanding, I still have to give them up — because they are based on my own righteousness, not God’s.

God will not be used as a stamp of affirmation for our opinions.  Our righteousness before him is like filthy rags.  (Isaiah 64:6)  Nothing of our own efforts — no idea, no conviction, no stance — can we offer to God and expect him to approve.  All we can do with all we are and have is to lay it on the altar before him.

This is scary.  How is the faith I’m talking about any different from the brainwashing of Jim Jones’ followers?  They also were told to scrap their own ideas of right and wrong, to give up their ownership of themselves, to expect to have their own beliefs and habits overturned in every particular.  And yet we would all agree that the mass suicide at Jonestown was wrong, was evil on a cosmic scale, that the people involved in it were tragically deluded.

Many of the people who followed Hitler also put to death their own sense of right and wrong, which seems to be what I’m recommending here.  They were led into unimaginable atrocities (except now we can imagine them, having seen their results).  These people became less than human.

So what is the difference between what Jesus is saying in the Bible and what Jim Jones or Hitler asked of their followers?  Some people –many people, I think — say that the difference rests in us.  We have to be smarter than the victims of these cults.  We have to weigh claims more carefully, trust less easily, hold back on our impulses to belong and follow, measure everything against what we think is right.  But I don’t think that we should hold back from trusting and commitment, and the difference between cultists and Christians doesn’t rest in our discernment or our moral strength.

“Aren’t we supposed to be discerning?” you object.  “Are we supposed to be brain-dead cultists?  What’s to protect us from turning into zombies and being exploited by the powers of darkness?”

Good questions.  Only one thing protects us from the powers of darkness.  Only one thing stands as the difference between true faith and perverted cultism.  That one thing isn’t our moral discernment, or our correct worldview, or our sturdy conscience.  That one thing, in fact, isn’t a thing but a person.  The difference is Jesus himself.

It is wrong for Jim Jones or Hitler or even your pastor to ask you to sacrifice your deepest self on their altar.  But it isn’t wrong because of the sacrifice being asked.  It is wrong because of the person asking.  If you kill yourself for Jim Jones, can he give you new life?  If you humble yourself before Hitler, will he lift you up on the last day?  No, of course not, and those two were wicked for asking.  Not because what they were asking for was wrong, but because they were not God to ask for it.

To me this is the most terrifying part of the Christian life.  For decades now I’ve been asked daily to put my old self to death.  I’ve been asked to swallow and even forgive injustice to myself and others, though every cell in my body screams that it’s wrong.  I’ve been asked to give up my own ideas about what is nice, and loving, and proper, and to start wielding a two-edged sword, which really doesn’t make me popular with anyone.  All this effort and sacrifice, and how do I know I’m right?  I’m either in collusion with an evil, brain-sucking power that will turn me into a zombie, as some in my family would claim, or I’m in the process of being remade into the image of God.

Both of those processes involve my death, my more or less willing immolation of myself.  The difference is not in the process but in the person to whom the process is offered.  The zombie master, whatever face he takes on,  will make me an animated corpse.  Jesus will give me a new and more glorious life to replace the one I laid down before him.  The zombie master will gleefully take my sacrificed conscience and replace it with lusts and desire for death.  Jesus will give me his own perfect sense of right and wrong, his own balance of mercy and righteousness.

Both of those processes could be stopped if I held back, if I hung on to my own jumble of convictions and individualism.  Maybe I should hold back, because I sure don’t want to become a zombie.  But if I hold back, then I’ll never grow into the image and likeness of God.

Here is where the danger lies.  This is the great challenge of the Christian life.  If I hold on to my little self and never offer it up, I’m like a kernel of wheat that refuses to leave the hopper and will never yield fruit.  But if I offer myself up, how do I know I’m offering rightly?  How do I know I’ll end up seeing the face of God and not end up a zombie?

I don’t.  This is the terror of faith.  This is the cost that we’re asked to consider before we follow Jesus.  This is the leap into the abyss that Saint Peter, and Francis of Assisi, and Mother Teresa, and you, and I have to face before we can face God.  This is the death that awaits us every day.


  1. Oh thank you. This is exactly what God has been showing me. Thank you again.

  2. David Cornwell says

    Damaris, you’ve made me think of something if it ever settles down in my brain to the point where I can articulate it…

  3. Christiane says

    “Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” —Walt Whitman

    • Knowing Whitman, Christiane, I would say that this quotation is exactly the opposite of what I’m saying. Is that what you mean?

  4. Wow Damaris – well said and powerful. This should be reduced to a pamphlet and distributed to every person who claims the label Christian. Your paragraph about giving up all exquisite. Thank you for this post.

  5. David Cornwell says

    This, to me, has always been a very difficult concept i.e. the how, the when, the sureness of dying as you are describing it. Is it ever really accomplished? Does one work at it? Is it a work of grace that we partake of by faith?

    I went to college in the late 1950’s. The school I went to was part of the Wesleyan holiness tradition, an offshoot Methodism. Their doctrinal distinctive was that holiness/sanctification was achieved by a second work of grace that can and should happen in this life. To reach the point of partaking of this work of grace, one had to die out to self in much the way you describe it.

    I no longer agree with how they described it, but the emphasis on sanctification is a sound one. Perhaps I quit agreeing with it because I fail to see how it can ever happen in this life. And that’s the way I feel about death as you describe it. Maybe only the saints who have jumped into the abyss have reached it in this life. Perhaps the rest of us wait until the moment of death.

    Over time it became such a struggle for me that I gave up on ever reaching such a point.

    Maybe I’m the only one that’s confused!

    • Your definitely not the only one David – Thanks for your always thoughtful comments.

    • Could it be that giving up that particular doctrine was a part of your leap into the abyss? While I think defining doctrine is of the utmost importance, I also believe that there comes a point in any true journey of faith where almost every facet of that doctrine will be wrecked – by the person of Jesus.

      • David Cornwell says

        Well there was a certain freedom that came from giving up certain teachings as being absolute.

        I think you have a point about doctrine and so-called propositional truth. There is a lot we can’t logically explain no matter how we try. So often the specific experiences of individuals are turned into a doctrine. Something happens to a person or maybe a group, it is described in a certain way, they are sure it is of God– thus everyone must experience it in that way. And then maybe a doctrine or a denomination is born.

        I had a seminary professor of church history once say that we will never be able to pin God down as to how he works. And I sort of like the idea that “almost every facet of that doctrine will be wrecked – by the person of Jesus.” But it is scary at times.

        I’m just thinking and talking off the top of my head right now. Damaris has got me thinking this evening.

  6. We have to weigh claims more carefully, trust less easily, hold back on our impulses to belong and follow, measure everything against what we think is right.

    That’s discernment. That’s conscience. That’s what God gives us to move forward and be people of faith (and community and prayer and, for some, hearing God). We are humans, creations of God, put in this world, given brains and hearts and souls.

    I’m trying to put together what substance you’re really saying here. Offer up, in humble prayer, the matter to God for clarity and guidance? OK. But what else?

    And since Jesus called people to action, those pluses become a big part of following Christ.

    • It’s tricky, Rachel. Yes, we have to use discernment and conscience, but given our fallen natures, our discernment and conscience can’t be trusted. We have to give them up so that they can be given back to us by God. I know several people who feel that their consciences can’t allow them to believe in the God of the Bible, for example. Since my foundational assumption is that the God of the Bible made consciences, I can’t accept the validity of the non-believer’s conscientious scruples. I pray for them, in this case, to give up their reliance on their own consciences and look for truth outside themselves. These people want to be conscience-driven people, but their consciences are driving them wrong. We have to be able to trust something above ourselves.

  7. Damaris, this is excellent. I’ve run across this sort of idea, obliquely, in George Macdonald – via fiction, through ‘Lillith;’ nonfiction, ‘Unspoken Sermons.’ But he never addresses it nearly so succinctly or directly.
    We are proud, insecure beings – I suppose that’s why we have so few people like Francis of Assisi or Therese of Liseux.

    • Yes, “Lilith” and Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces” — a hard read, but cathartic. Those two have influenced me greatly.

  8. Thanks for this post, Damaris. I think I would have been terrified by it not long ago. And I think it is what kept me from knowing God while living the “good” Christian life for so long.

    It took great suffering and brokeness for me to scream cry for God. I met him there in my own pitiful pit. I had never had cause to consider the costs of following Jesus. But I have come to believe, “your will, not mine–no matter what you want” is my only worthwhile prayer. I truly believe the best place for me is wherever God leads me. It’s no longer terrifying though I know it means constant surrender of all of me, mine and I. Thanks again for this post.

Speak Your Mind